Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Aug 11th 2011
DVD - Complete Box Set [Classic]
Dyed-in-the-wool farm boy Hideki Motosuwa had his heart set on going to college in the big city. When the inevitable rejection letter arrives, he goes anyway—to attend prep school. The city is full of sights and sounds that are bewildering to a sheltered boy like Hideki, not least among them the persocoms that seemingly everyone totes around. Powerful, versatile and virtually indistinguishable from humans, persocoms are the latest in computer technology. Hideki would like one, if only to experience the wide world of internet porn, but he is crushingly poor and they are so very, very expensive. Lucky for him he finds one in the trash bin out back of his apartment. All she can say is "chi" and she seemingly has no software, but she's cute and she's a persocom. Chi is no normal persocom, though. She's an infantile yet terrifically powerful enigma. She's also Hideki's doorway into the complicated world of human/persocom relations. Hideki's been warned not to fall in love, but he may not have a choice.
Need to get out from underneath the mindless jiggling, cynical moe manipulation, and general licentiousness of your average shonen romance? Then perhaps it's time to revisit Chobits. Okay, maybe it won't solve the general licentiousness problem, but it is one of the better reminders out there that a guy-centric romantic fantasy can be thoughtful, well-crafted, and even challenging.
Of course, it is still a guy-centric romantic fantasy. Early in the series Hideki thinks "haven't I seen this series before?" And yes, he has. We all have. It's a fairly basic magical girlfriend setup: you have your average Joe, your mysterious girl from nowhere, and your variety of potential romantic rivals. The girl is inexplicably yet wholeheartedly devoted to the guy, prone to ecchi mishaps, and as a bonus can initially say only one word. She's also passive, patient, slavishly obedient, and entirely reliant on her male protector. If wish-fulfillment smelled, Chobits would stink. Chi takes certain male fantasies so far that they cease to be remotely enticing and become genuinely unsettling. What does it say about the fantasies that romances peddle that, when taken to their logical extreme, they produce a girl who is essentially an infant? Seen that way, Chi ceases to serve as an idealized female and actually becomes something of a commentary on ideals of femininity. Clever, huh? That could of course be wishful thinking, but the fact that the series sprang from the minds of four highly intelligent women (that would be the CLAMP collective) lends it a certain credence.
Not every crimp the show puts in the shonen romance formula is that complicated. Some are as simple as betraying expectations about male leads. Hideki is an average Joe, yes, but he's an average Joe with a personality, a background, and a life. He's a big, likeable lunk of a bumpkin with a libido bigger than his farm back home and a heart to match. He worries about his future, cares for his friends, and is credibly confused about his feelings. When things go bad, as they must, he reaches deep into his bumpkin depths and finds reserves of strength and wisdom that he, with his exaggerated view of his own limitations, would never credit himself with. He is, in short, a person—as opposed to a lump of meat that we're expected to project ourselves onto. In a similar twist, his alternate romantic interests—kindly landlady Hibiya, lovely prep-school teacher Shimizu, outgoing co-worker Yumi—also have backgrounds, lives, and romantic entanglements of their own. This is one romantic comedy where the girls aren't all waiting around for the guy to make up his mind. They're making their own decisions, often ones that don't involve Hideki at all. Imagine that.
Hideki and his flesh-and-blood compatriots are only half of the Chobits equation, however. The series is at heart a love story between a man and a machine. That isn't something that it takes lightly. The line between real love and an obsession with persocom capabilities is a recurrent theme. One arc highlights the social, emotional, and logistical problems of openly loving a machine. Another asks if its possible to truly love something that has nothing and can never attain anything that you didn't program into it. The series is careful to eliminate the "artificial human" cheat used by most robot romances, making persocoms clearly inhuman; most markedly in their psychology—these are machines built to serve, not to act and think like humans. Queasy hints of exploitation are never far from the surface—being built to serve means having little or no free will—and the question of whether a persocom can ever love their partner back is ever-present.
That is a serious mess of disquieting questions; questions asked, whispered and implied, but rarely answered. Rather than interfere with our enjoyment of Hideki and Chi's journey, however, the questions actually enhance it. It's a fun enough journey to begin with: Loaded with unnecessary fan-service and rube-in-the-big-city silliness; rife with mysteries big and small; and liberally seasoned with cryptic clues hidden within seemingly disposable detours. The pair also have some actual chemistry—who better, after all, to love the world's most unselfish man than a machine built for absolute devotion? And vice versa. But what really elevates their romance are those questions. They open up a real, and daunting, gulf between Chi and Hideki. They aren't just a guy and a girl with a little difference to overcome; they're fundamentally different existences grasping for a connection across an incomprehensible divide. There's something almost mythical about that: two beings trying to breach the ultimate barrier, between animate and inanimate, with the power of love.
It is there, in that whiff of myth, that master craftsman Morio Asaka proves his mettle. Oh, the quality of the series' craft is apparent even at a cursory glance. All of the usual markers are in place: animation that is easy on the eyes, frequent costume changes, instantly recognizable character designs, a beautiful pastel palette, backgrounds awash in pertinent atmosphere, attention to seemingly incidental details like the way that Sumomo, a pocket-sized persocom that Hideki ends up babysitting, dances. And of course there's Chi—one of the most impossibly cute creations in the history of anime. That is merely competence, however; not brilliance. Brilliance lays elsewhere: in the shades of unreality that Asaka wraps CLAMP's thorny confection in, in the thick lines and English-language backdrops that turn ecchi gags into moving manga panels, in the frequent storybook interludes and their haunting musical accompaniment. In the way that the pastel palette mirrors the storybooks Chi reads. In the indefinable...offness of the lighting and the architecture. In the childlike simplicity of the score. There's something about how it all comes together, something infuriatingly difficult to get a firm grip on, that touches that part of us that fairytales and legends touch, coaxing out the folk-tale undertones of Hideki and Chi's story for all to feel. That's pretty brilliant.
Not quite so brilliant is the dub. A holdover from the series' tenure in Geneon's catalogue, it features the great Crispin Freeman in the role of Hideki and some fine work by Michelle Ruff as Chi, but also suffers a bit from supporting-cast malaise. The translation is quite faithful and not nearly as cumbersome as it could have been, and no one really stinks up the joint acting-wise, but it won't be supplanting the original as the preferred version any time soon. As extras Funimation's Anime Classics re-release includes the three recap episodes that comprised disc seven of the Geneon releases (be sure to watch the last one) as well as the Chibits short (a humorous six-minute episode starring Sumomo) also included on that disc. Which is to say, if you own the original discs, there's no need to spring for these ones. If you don't, and you're a fan of romance, get out there right now and buy the Blu-ray. Seriously. This edition is a little on the fuzzy side video-wise.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ Fan-service romantic comedy with brains and ambition; has aged remarkably well; great male lead.
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